A Silly Bike Ride up the Biggest Climb in the Lower 48 States

Some people’s idea of vacation include warm, sunny beaches with a cocktail in hand. You know, the kind of thing that involves sunglasses, floppy beach hats, and sunkissed glows that are more socially acceptable that lycra tans. That sort of thing. How civil.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people’s idea of vacation starts far away from the beach in a little mountain town by the Sierras. I’m one of those people.

This is relaxing…right?

On August 11, 2019, my boyfriend Blake and I decided to go from Bishop, CA (elevation 4,150 feet) to the summit of White Mountain (elevation 14,252 feet). It would be my 5th ever mountain bike ride. To add to the challenge, I had never been above 9,000 feet until that point, meaning I had no clue how I’d handle high altitude.

To get to the top of the mountain, we had nothing more than our mountain bikes, four peanut butter jelly sandwiches, all the water we could reasonably pack, and a lot of determination. Here’s how our adventure unfolded.

Ride Summary

See the route on Strava

To get from Bishop to White Mountain was a 63-mile ride with 14,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the ride. The first section, Silver Canyon, is a brutal HC dirt climb followed by a climb up White Mountain ride, which has the sort of grades you never want to see in a ride.

Yes, that says a 42.6% grade. Uphill.

On you go until you reach a gate that only allows foot traffic (you’re on a dirt jeep road up to this point) and the real fun begins as you make your treacherous, 7-mile journey to the summit.

5AM — The Start

We knew it’d be a big day. We were fortunate to spend the weekend (plus some) at the Mammoth Lakes Crib—an amazing housing system offered by the Mammoth community (THANK YOU to Mammoth, you are amazing). The drive from Mammoth to Bishop is a short one–only 45 minutes or so. Blake, John, and I left Mammoth before sunrise, ready for a day’s adventure.

We stopped to make some early adjustments to stay comfortable throughout the big day.

John left us at the start—he had planned a much more sensible ride to help him prepare for Gravel Worlds (which he won a week later, yay John!). 15 minutes after getting ourselves ready, I told John it was nice knowing him and we took off for the dirt.

The First Challenge: Silver Canyon

I had been forewarned by Menso that Silver Canyon was steep. He cautioned us not to go past zone 2 heart rate; since I’d never been higher than 9,000 feet it was really a gamble how I’d do as I reached higher altitude. My MO was that if a grade was too steep, just walk.

The ride started out ok. The dirt road was definitely uphill, but nothing significant and pretty steady. Then we reached a sign that suggested things were about to change.

Phew, good thing I brought my four-wheeled offroad vehicle.

Shortly after passing the sign assuring us that we definitely had the right tools for the job, the pitches got a lot steeper and the first walking of the day began.

We were cautious about stopping too much—we wanted to be well out of Silver Canyon before the heat of the day.

Walking was inevitable at points.

I rode as conservatively as I could be because I knew this section was hard and that the ride would get even harder. If a section was too difficult, I’d simply dismount and begin to hike. After all, this was a game of patience, not ego.

White Mountain Road

The next section, White Mountain Road, is a continuation of Silver Canyon that takes you to the gate leading to the summit. To give you a taste of how difficult it is, this section involves 10.7 miles with 6,400 feet of elevation gain.

Up, up, and more up.

I soon accepted that climbing was my fate. I was drinking water, just a little at a time. There were no water stops on the entire ride and to our knowledge, no places to even filter water along the way. All you had was what you could carry on your back (in our case, 2L in our water backpacks, and 3 cycling water bottles each).

Eating wasn’t as hard as I expected it to be at altitude. I ate a peanut butter and jelly as well as some bars here and there to avoid bonking.

Blake having “fun” on the climb.

White Mountain Road involved a lot of walking. I had a 42T cassette on my bike and it definitely was not enough to ride many sections without going well past the zone 2 heart rate max.

Finally, at about 25 miles into the ride—after almost seven hours of riding—we reached a gate indicating no cars beyond that point. While we getting more tired and the air was getting thinner, we passed the gate with excitement—the summit was only seven miles away.

From the Gate to the Summit

Little did we know that the fun was just about to start. We had heard rumors about how hard this section was, but it’s hard to not temper your excitement when you think you can taste the finish.

The motivation of being “almost there” was nice, but short lived.

It started off fine; a nice wide dirt road. A few miles in, the pitches got steeper and the rocks got looser and chunkier.

Eventually, we reached a research station. Past that point, the rocks got even looser and even chunkier. We were met with some descents, which were bad news as it meant there would be more climbing between us and the summit.

Then, a glorious thing happened: we caught sight of our destination: White Mountain. “There it is!” we thought as we naively charged onwards. For another hour or so, we plowed past the big, loose rocks and down the silly descents, motivated by the visual sight of our goal.

Are we there yet?

And, an hour later, it felt like we had gotten nowhere.

Eventually, the trail hung left and down a pretty sketchy, rocky descent that I chose to walk (I wasn’t in the mood to crash this close to the summit). I rolled up to Blake, who was starting to look pretty tired from all the climbing at altitude. We had about 1.5 miles to go and after taking a look at the trail conditions we were dealing with, we decided to ditch the bikes and complete the trek to the summit by foot.

The slog to the summit was slow to say the least.

We slowly made our way up (in cycling shoes), with the peak of the mountain taunting us with every step. We could literally see the top just laughing down on us as we slowly but surely stumbled along the trail.

What felt like an eternity later, we were so close to the summit that we could see the small shed-like structure at the top. Heck, we could probably throw a rock at it. But still, we trudged on.

The one upside of the slow walk was that it gave us plenty of time to take in the incredible views at the top.

The air was definitely getting thinner but at this point we were determined just to get there. And, after several rocky switchbacks, WE GOT THERE.

The Summit

Getting to the top of the mountain felt amazing. We had the entire summit to ourselves. I could have cried of happiness. It was my first 14er and getting to the summit meant a lot. And, in the hours leading up to the summit, a crazy idea popped into my head that I couldn’t ignore 🙂

The view from the top. Perfectly clear, blue day. Easy to see Whitney off in the distance.

We both took a seat on the concrete base of the structure at the summit. We took a moment and soak in what we had just done; it was an incredible and surreal feeling. After a few minutes of resting, Blake asked if I wanted to go get the sign that read “White Mountain Summit, 14,252 feet.” I told him sure…but in a second. And then, I asked him to marry me 🙂

Just two happy people on a mountain.

I think my proposal might have surprised him. Hey, I even surprised myself! I did not plan to do it until that day. But sometimes you need to listen to what feels right and not fight it 🙂 And I’m so glad I did.

This ride is a hoax, we just photoshopped the background in.

After happily taking some photos and signing our names in the notebook at the top of the mountain (August 11th 2019, “He said yes! Love, Blake and Victoria”), we made our way down.

The Descent

Now time to go down…kind of.

Describing the second half of the ride as the way “down” is misleading. You gain about 4K feet with five or six climbs on the way back. It was really helpful to have the front lights on the handlebars, though, because sunset hit right as we were about to start the final descent of Silver Canyon (lots of steep downhill grades with tight switchbacks).

We stopped a few times to let the brakes cool off before we continued on. Eventually the grades leveled out and I knew the finish line (aka my Prius) was within reach. What a glorious feeling.

Setup and Equipment

This bike was awesome.

I was really happy with my bike and general equipment setup. I wanted to keep it as light and as functional as possible. Here’s what I had:

  • Dual suspension Trek mountain bike with a 42T cassette in the back. Honestly would have liked more gears for the climbing but hey, what are ya gonna do.
  • Ornot handlebar bag. I love, love, love this bag. I fit snacks, extra tubes, lights, and other essentials like my Zealios sunscreen in the bag.
  • Zealios sunscreen. I don’t like the idea of skin cancer, so I really like the idea of awesome sunscreen. We were out from 5am to 9pm (or later, I can’t even remember). Even so, no sunburns. Thank you Zealios for preventing me from being a leathery old lady one day!
  • Orange Mud water backpack (Endurance pack). I fit 2L of water in the bladder, plus two extra water bottles plus a bunch of snacks and still had room to spare. I was pleasantly surprised I had so much room to store stuff.
  • Lezyne Mega XL computer. I had pre-loaded the ride and offline map, which adds a nice sense of being “prepared”. Had some weird issues at altitude (starting at about 13,00 feet) which I am still unsure whether the cause was user error or machine error.

If I were to change one thing it would have been the saddle. I was riding my now-fiancé’s bike and the saddle that’s on it is no bueno for ladies, at least not for that many hours 🙂

After the ride it was super nice to just chill out. Major thanks to Mammoth Lakes Crib for hosting us that week and to our amazing supporters like Marc Pro, without whom recovery would not be the same!

Would I do it again?

No. This was decidedly type 3 fun.

Ask me again in three years though. Maybe by then I’ll forget how hard this ride was.

That said, while conquering White Mountain was without a doubt the hardest ride or physical activity I’ve ever done, I will certainly always be grateful for it 🙂

Still smiling, so it can’t be that bad, right?